eCoaching Tip 114 Difficult Students Online? What Do You do?

May 30 2014 Reviewed March 18 2020

eCoaching Tip 114  Difficult Students Online? What Do You do?

Have you experienced any of these student issues or behaviors in your courses?

  • Postings that elicit disquieting or uncomfortable feelings
  • Off-topic postings with little relevance to the learning assignment
  • Chronically late postings or assignments
  • Postings that are only minimally participatory
  • Postings that suggest serious underlying problems of potential harm to self or others

These are a few of the behaviors that can cause deep concern and worry for online faculty. As one director of student services share with me, “Difficult students can be disheartening for everyone… and it is very important that instructors know they have the support and backup from the entire student services team.”

What actions should instructors take in the face of such events? When do they take action themselves and when do they contact or alert a student’s advisor? Are there ways to discourage and prevent these behaviors? Is it possible to create an environment that encourages positive focused learning?

Types of Difficult Students

The literature on challenging behaviors of students generally describes student behaviors in categories such as disturbeddisrespectful or difficult. Disturbed students are the most worrisome and might include being a danger to themselves or others. Disrespectful students are those students who display rebellious, contrary or openly combative behavior, distracting other learners from the learning experiences. Difficult students, the third category, might best be described as time-consuming, annoying or just plain worrisome. Difficult students are those who do not fully engage in the course experience, are frequently late with their work including their postings and do not interact or encourage support and learning with their peers.  Difficult students stall, make up excuses, and can take up a great deal of time from an instructor.

A primary difference between disrespectful students and difficult students is that the conduct of disrespectful students impacts the entire learning community while difficult students primarily hurt their own learning while also creating more work for the instructor. The lines blur, of course, as both disrespectful and difficult students can cause distressing ripple effects within a learning community.

Unique Challenges of Online Difficult Students

Much of the literature on difficult students describes troublesome behaviors of students in physical classrooms. In fact, many of the problems encountered by faculty in online situations pale in comparison to the problems faculty might face in real physical classrooms. In online courses, faculty don’t have to worry about inappropriate behaviors such as arriving late, leaving early, talking on cell phones, eating pizza, reading newspapers or sending text messages, or even unpleasant odors or inappropriate dress. In this respect, what we can’t see while in virtual online synchronous or asynchronous gatherings can be a real blessing!

In a real time online classroom gathering when only the video of the person presenting or talking is seen, uncivil or inappropriate behavior is neither seen nor hopefully heard. In fact, side conversations in the chat room are encouraged and can support engagement by more than two or three students simultaneously. On the other hand, if students are trying to multitask their presence and include trying to read, write or even parent during the online gathering, the learning community eventually notices and is impacted by that “partial presence” of their peers.

Prevention is the Best and First Strategy

As with any difficult human behaviors, the best strategy is prevention. Prevention strategies generally consist of actions such as (1) clarifying expectations upfront with codes of conduct and appropriate learning goals; (2) creating an environment that invites and rewards positive behaviors, and (3) models appropriate conduct and expectations (Tarr & Lang, 2006, 2011).

In the context of online courses, this means ensuring that syllabi and other course materials describe expected rules of conduct for succeeding and doing well in online courses. This means that before the course starts, students review a code of conduct for learning that includes netiquette, course expectations on the work, and descriptions on how to relate and interact with the instructors and peers.  Depending on the context and the level of student experiences, some instructors create a forum where students state their expectations and recommendations for course behavior and actions. My friend from student services encourages use of the pre-week to “set expectations, promote and disseminate guidelines for respectful dialogue/postings and other success behaviors in online classes.”

An academic advisor that I interviewed noted that that the diversity of students, particularly at the undergraduate level, can make prevention difficult. She noted that while some students are really on top of things, other students don’t have their degrees as yet and those reasons/behaviors for program non-completion might be persistent and deeply embedded. Yet other students may feel as if they have lived enough of life, and wonder why they need to do this kind of work. In other words, difficult students are quite diverse.

How Can I Recognize Disturbed Students?

Here are some of the behaviors of students that do suggest more serious underlying problems that can benefit from professional counseling or guidance. These types of behavior merit immediate attention, such as individual intervention and possibly immediate referral to advisors.

  • Discriminatory, abusive or bullying language directed towards another student, instructor or staff member
  • Obstruction or disruption of teaching or learning experiences
  • Negative or flaming postings that persist over time despite gentle or not so gentle intervention
  • Failure to respect the rights of others to express their viewpoints
  • Out-of-context unusual, strange, or bizarre remarks

In many cases, the first step to take is to contact the student’s academic advisor.  Here is a resource from the University Counseling and Wellbeing Center at Duquesne University on Helping Distressed Students. 

How Can I Recognize Disrespectful Students?

Disrespectful students can impair community cohesiveness and support in an online course.  A weak online course community detracts from the effective learning and the joy that we hope to achieve in course experiences.

Responding to these types of behaviors often requires a multi-step process. If the comments are particular inflammatory or distressing or simply merit deletion, an instructor has the right and probably should delete the posting immediately and follow up privately by phone or email with the offending student. This is an action that can be  handled between the instructor and the student and may not need to go any further. More on the steps in the process are below. Here are some examples of disrespectful behaviors.

  • Posting irrelevant or irreverent discussion posts
  • Obstruction or disruption of teaching or learning experiences just “because”
  • Persistent negative or flaming postings
  • Complaining and whining about assignments, content or other course expectations
  • Arrogant or unnecessarily contrary or controlling comments
  • Postings that reveal beliefs that cause discomfort or cringing in other students
  • Attention-getting behaviors that waste time and distract from learning

As a director of student services once observed in a private communication, “there is a fine line between freedom of opinion and not being sensitive to the other students in the class, and this is hard for some students to understand.”  Most useful might be her comment, “If it raises an eyebrow in the instructor we should probably look at it. I would rather be safe than sorry.”

Military students who may have just returned from deployment may still be working through issues and processing all that they have experienced. Their postings can sometimes cause concern and/or discomfort in others. This is a good example where early and gentle intervention about what is appropriate in a learning context may need to be differentiated from what is appropriate in other types of group settings. More about the special stresses faced by military students is in the tip, Best Practices for Teaching and Reaching your Military Learners.

Recognizing Difficult Students

It’s an unusual course that doesn’t have one or two difficult students. Difficult students provide the most angst to themselves and the instructor and by extension minimize the potential richness of the learning community.

The reasons why students might be difficult can vary considerably. Students may have signed up for too many courses. Students may feel unprepared, outflanked, or overwhelmed. Family and work responsibilities may have mushroomed unexpectedly or problems with their health may have surfaced. Or the course turns out to be a poor match for what they expected.  Of course the student may simply be going through a difficult emotional time, and decide to not do the work, just because it is the only way they can protest life.

What can be done with difficult students? Sometimes not much, but many difficult students can be brought back into the coursefold and successfully complete a course through shows of support and concern, and yes, time, from their instructor and peers.

Before describing some of the steps to take with difficult students, here are some of the behaviors of difficult students that you may recognize.

  • A multitude of excuses for posting sparsely, poorly, late or not at all (I was at the ER with a sick child; my full time job is interfering with my ability to have time to do the work; the rubrics “don’t work for me.” (From an academic advisor)
  • Requests for more and more information on assignments as a way of delaying work on the assignments
  • Disregard for deadlines
  • Reduced or no participation in small groups or teams
  • Postings that reveal beliefs that cause discomfort or cringing in other students
  • Postings that show they do not agree with other students, but do not know how to state their positions, beliefs in a positive way

Processes for Dealings with Difficult Students

So what is one to do? Depending on the type of situation, here is a seven-step strategy for managing difficult and disrespectful students. (Adapted from Brian von Brunt as in Bart, 2012)

  1. Contact student privately by phone, email or in person if that makes sense. It is always best to act quickly particularly if you have had to delete a posting. In the case of other posting concerns, acting quickly helps to stop problems before they fester or escalate. Acting quickly is also good for the community as a whole as you reinforce the code of conduct and expectations that you discussed in the pre-week. It is good to err on the side of encouraging and modeling good behavior.
  2. Describe the student’s behavior as explicitly as you can and its impact on their learning success and that of others
  3. Listen to the student’s perspective and response
  4. Discuss appropriate behavior and suggest help resources as appropriate
  5. Agree on next steps and consequences if not achieved or met
  6. Summarize the conversation
  7. Document the meeting/conversation
  8. Set up a follow up conversation, checkpoint as appropriate

Some disturbed or very difficult students need to be encouraged to see and meet with their advisor sooner rather than later. This is also the best route for students who have serious underlying health or emotional problems or who are displaying real problems with getting course work done.

More Preventive Strategies in Your Hands

One of the more important prevention strategies for preventing incivilities is creating a positive and supportive course community. How is this done? We already mentioned one strategy, that of modeling the kinds of posting and interactions that support learning and communicate a sense of caring to all the students. Some of the other strategies suggested by Sorcinelli (2002) mentioned in Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation (n.d.) include the following:

  1. Decrease anonymity by getting to know the students as individuals with specific course goals and expectations. We do this through the use of the social introductions and specific course goal setting in the early weeks of the course.
  2. Engage students one-on-one so that each student feels as if they are contributing to the overall learning of the course community. Each student working on specific learning goals important to themselves, but useful to the overall community is one way of achieving this.
  3. Encourage active learning. This strategy reinforces the goal of having students be personally responsible for their learning and engages their creativity.

Other Resources

Many course management systems includes resources to help instructors monitor student’s progress and activity within online courses.  Many of these systems automatically send an email to the student, the student’s advisor, and to you, the instructor, if a student fails to log in to your course site for five (5) consecutive days at any point during the term. Once you receive that email, it is recommended that you do the following:

  1. “Contact the student to remind him or her of the importance of routinely logging in to course site to interact with classmates and to complete course work, or to find out if there are other circumstances that are preventing him or her from completing course work.
  2. Clearly state to the student the consequences of failing to complete course requirements in a timely manner. If applicable, inform the student of the activities/assignments/expectations that he or she has failed to complete and when they were due. Be straightforward with your expectations, while at the same time reserving the possibility of offering him or her the opportunity to work toward partial credit on past-due work.
  3. Contact the student’s academic advisor to discuss concerns and to formulate a plan to bring the student back on track.”

Academic Advising Support at Duquesne University 

Many thanks to Marianne Leister, Director of Student Services and Meg Barefoot, Academic Advisor, both of  The School of Leadership & Professional Advancement for their time, thoughts and insights into this tip. They helped immensely in discerning the issues and challenges in helping all our students succeed.


Bart, M. (2012). Dealing with Difficult Students and Other Classroom Disruptions. Faculty Focus. Magna Publications. Retrieved May 24, 2014, from

Boettcher, J. V. (2013). eCoaching Tip 107: Best Practices for Teaching and Reaching your Military Learners. Retrieved from

Braxton, J. M. & Bayer, A. E. (Eds.). (2004). Faculty and student classroom improprieties: New directions for teaching and learning, no. 99. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from:

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation(n.d.) Address Problematic Student Behavior.Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from

Hernandez, T., & Fister, D. (2001). Dealing With Disruptive and Emotional College Students: A Systems Model. Journal of College Counseling 4(1). Retrieved from

Las Positas College (n.d.). Dealing with Disruptive Students.  Retrieved from

Lester, J. C., Affenito, S. G., & Atwood, P. (2008). Distressed Students Online: Concerns and Suggestions. University of Iowa Counseling Services. Retrieved from

Office of the Dean of Students (n.d.). Dealing with Disruptive Students. North Carolina Central University. Durham, N.C.  Retrieved May 22 2014, 2014, from

Sorcinelli, M. D. (2002). Promoting civility in large classes. In C. Stanley & E. Porter (Eds.), Engaging large classes: Strategies and techniques for college faculty (44-57). Bolton, MA: Anker.

Student Behavioral Consultant Team. (2020). Faculty & Staff Guide for Responding to Distressed/ Disruptive Students. Retrieved from

Sull, E. C. (2012). Tips for Overcoming Online Discussion Board Challenges. Faculty Focus, Magna Publications. (September 6 2012). Retrieved from

Tarr, T., & Lang, S. (2006, 2011). Tips for Handling Disruptive Student Behavior. Center for Teaching and Learning at IUPUI. Retrieved May 23,2014, from

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020